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Levelling the field for psychological safety

I entered 'psychological safety' into the search field on You Tube last week. Not a cry for help, just part of my ongoing inquiry into what makes great leaders and workplaces.

The algorithms delivered good business stuff: Dr Amy Edmondson, Dr Timothy Clark, Simon Sinek.

Because it was international women's day, I added the words 'women, girls, stories' to my search. Let's deal with the good business stuff first before getting to the raw experiences.

Scrabble tiles spelling out Stay Safe
Image: Nelly Antoniadou via Unsplash

Dr Edmondson says a psychologically safe workplace allows for risk, including the risks of asking for help and admitting mistakes. Clarity and transparency are the building blocks of such workplaces.

But don't expect a psychologically safe workplace to be free of conflict - being able to disagree is vital for safety. Otherwise you miss the energising effect of finding a way through.

Dr Clark also talks about risk, and the primary risk is exclusion. This is something that comes up repeatedly in the work we do on diversity and inclusion. The inclusion is what make the diversity meaningful.

And Clark says it is also the first of of four elements that are essential for psychological safety: feeling included, feeling safe to learn (which means being able to make mistakes), feeling safe to contribute, and feeling safe to challenge. Without these elements, we live in fear - which shuts us down.

Simon Sinek focuses on how leaders build safety and trust. His examples are drawn from the military, where physical safety is at risk. He describes how trust grows when people rely on one another for physical safety. He also stresses the give and take that is evident in high-trust environments.

All of this is good stuff that helps inform my work with leaders and teams.

But I was much more affected by Women's Day | Not Okay: 5 Women Share Their Everyday Sexual Harassment Stories | The Quint - a video released on International Women's Day in 2020. The stories highlight the lack of physical safety, and the absence of a trusted team.

These are women going about their lives: parenting, studying, working. Their experiences include physical assault, verbal harassment, intimidation, and stalking. Their responses were to speak up, challenge, or move on.

All of them bore the brunt of resolving the situation. Even when they asked for help, it was not immediately offered or readily forthcoming. I thought about how much harder it must be for these women to do what they want to do when they are so occupied by maintaining their safety.

When we're talking about resilience, we highlight the mental energy required for vigilance against threats. It's a double-whammy: mental energy is diverted from what they want to be doing, and they are wearing themselves out by being in a state of hypervigilance.

Next time I'm stepping people through the ideas of risk, inclusion, and trust, I'll be asking them to go back to basics: what language is used in your workplace? What behaviours do people see? What systems do you have in place for reporting and responding to sexual harassment?


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